Why Hjalmarsson's injury hasn't slowed tough, disciplined Coyotes
Just like he'd done nearly 1,500 times before, Niklas Hjalmarsson got into a shooting lane during Arizona's fourth game of the season and prepared to block a shot.
As Colorado's Erik Johnson fired the puck from just inside the blue line, the stickless Hjalmarsson crouched down and turned his left leg 90 degrees to the right.
The puck exploded into Hjalmarsson's fibula, sending the former Blackhawks defenseman facedown to the ice in utter agony. A second later, Hjalmarsson managed to get to his feet and skated to the bench.
But he also wasted no time limping into the dressing room -- and that's when teammate Jordan Oesterle figured something was seriously wrong.
"I mean you guys (in Chicago) have seen him block so many shots -- a lot of em don't even faze him," Oesterle said before the Coyotes' 4-3 shootout victory over the Blackhawks at the United Center on Sunday. "So to see him limp around and go straight to the tunnel, there was (definitely) caution in our eyes.
"We were all holding our breath and hoping for the best, but obviously it was the worst-case scenario."
Hjalmarsson has missed two months with a cracked fibula, depriving Arizona of its best penalty killer and top stay-at-home defenseman. For a franchise like Arizona, which hasn't qualified for the postseason since 2012, an injury like this could have been a death knell.
But this is a different year and a different team.
"Obviously when anyone goes down, you always wonder," said GM John Chayka, whose first-place Coyotes are 19-11-4 after defeating the Hawks 5-2 in a rematch in Arizona on Thursday. "It was a blow. When we talked about it with the team, (we said) everyone's got to grab a piece. No one person's going to cover up for Nik or take over.
"That (sounds) cliché, but at the same time, that's what's happened."
It's happened in large part because Arizona grind teams down and do all the little things right.
Even when the Coyotes fell behind 3-1 at the United Center last week, they still ran the Hawks ragged by utterly dominating the final 40 minutes.
"They're a momentum team," said Hawks goalie Robin Lehner. "They keep grinding away; we try to catch up and we try to do a little bit too much ... and they just capitalize on that. They (had) four or five 2-on-1s, 3-on-1s in the third period. That's all structure. We were in our zone the whole period."
The Coyotes stick to their structure because they have three immensely talented blue liners in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakob Chychrun and Alex Goligoski, and a fourth in Jason Demers who has 638 games under his belt. (Demers, however, is now week-to-week with a knee injury).
Throw in goalies Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, and it's easy to see why Arizona is second in the league in goals allowed at 2.36 per game.
This group is the backbone to an impressive squad that figures to make the playoffs.
How far they go will likely depend on a young, emerging forward group that includes former Hawks Nick Schmaltz (6G, 17A) and Vinnie Hinostroza (4G, 9A), as well as Conor Garland (12 goals), Clayton Keller (7G, 16A) and Christian Dvorak (8G, 11A).
And let's not forget Phil Kessel, whom Chayka added via trade last off-season. The two-time Stanley Cup winner was brought on board because he's still a high-quality hockey player.
But, like Hjalmarsson, he'll also be a voice of reason when the inevitable tough times hit down the stretch and into the postseason.
"We've got a lot of young players we're relying on up front," Chayka said. "He's performed on the biggest stages, winning Cups and medals and everything. That's what he brings to us.
"There's been some times this year where we had a lot of chances and we didn't score. In the past, maybe that creates a lot of panic. ...
"Phil just brings that calm and that poise. He's seen it all, he's done it all and that rubs off on our entire group."
A group that should get Hjalmarsson back by mid-January. Then watch out -- these Coyotes may just lay the hammer down on the Western Conference the rest of the way.